I was first introduced to Filipino food as a child attending St. Boniface Church in Anaheim, during one of its annual late-spring fiestas. A large Pinoy community attended the church and enlivened parish fairs and potlucks with trays of pancit bihon and palabok, crispy pata, and all the meat-heavy delights that make Filipino food so damn satisfying.
The love affair continued once my best friend Art started dating a Filipina chick, and continued as I began reviewing restaurants for this infernal rag. Between Edwin and I, I’ll bet anyone that we’ve reviewed more Filipino restaurants than any non-Filipino publication in the United States, and for longer. Filipino food just started getting mainstream respect these past couple of years, this despite a VERY prominent food critic (whose name I won’t say to spare them the embarrassment) telling my Filipino journalist pals years ago that there was nothing worthwhile in Filipino food, and that’s why they never reviewed it (and if you read the person’s archives, they STILL maintain that disrespect).
And it’s with this past background that I approached Irenia, the new modern Filipino restaurant in downtown SanTana run by Ryan Garlitos. The chica, some friends and meself went last Saturday, to their soft opening. And even this early in Irenia’s run, you see the makings of a great, bold restaurant: one that tackles an unappreciated cuisine, pushes it forward, yet doesn’t mess with the basics. If they play it right, it might be one of OC’s most important restaurant openings this year, if not this decade.
You know a restaurant is serious when one of the appetizers is dried anchovies in spicy vinegar—not as a shock treat ala too many places that sell dried pig’s ears, but because this is Filipino food. I’m not the biggest fan of anchovies, yet the ambiance—which is like 1981 Eagle Rock, all pastels and fans on walls and a pink neon sign behind the bar—demands you dive in, and Garlitos’ unapologetic flavors snap you into chowing them all down.
Right now, the dishes are a greatest-hits of Filipino food: pancit featuring a reduction made from the prawn heads (spectacular), adobo on a mung bean puree (huge piece, great combo with the mung bean), and even a take on kamatis, tomatoes cooked alongside cucumbers and an egg sauce that’s like the only egg salad ever worth eating. It’s going to be a seasonal menu, and lunch will start in a couple of weeks, meaning Garlitos will rotate dishes as he sees fit. But here’s to hoping he throws in a turo-turo Sunday brunch special, so hipsters can hang out with aunties.
The only critique I’d have right now: cocktails. While the flavors and concepts are all there—an ube fizz? A calamansi-based beauty? Dried persimmons as a garnish? HELL YA!!!—I felt the Filipino parts of the drinks were a bit muted, especially in comparison to the unadulterated courses. They were still good cocktails, with the easy possibility of becoming great.
I’ve written enough—go to Irenia tonight, tomorrow night, and every night, and prove that pendejo food critic wrong!
Irena, 400 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (657) 245-3466; www.ireniarestaurant.com